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Caleb Charland’s Handmade Universe

Caleb Charland is a new friend to HCP and recently offered to donate a print to HCP’s 2014 print auction. I got to know Caleb through this email exchange and wanted to know more about how he mixes photography and science so playfully. Caleb is a photographer who lives in works in Maine who utilizes found materials and hand crafts them to create other worldly imagery. We chatted one lazy Saturday about the universe, children’s experiments, and the difference between a great photograph and a great experiment.

Caleb Charland, Two Lamps, Hope, Maine, Courtesy of the artist

Caroline Docwra: Tell me how you got into photography? Has science always been connected to photography for you?

Caleb Charland: I think I incorporated science and photography even when I was taking my first courses in high school and through college. Because photography is sort of a scientific medium, where you are in a laboratory and you have all of these variables to keep straight and you are working with chemistry and time and space. I think that it fundamentally lends itself to experimentation and science in a way.

CD: Do you make an effort to create products of experimentation and discovery like you said you find from kids’ science books? How do you find these new ideas to photograph?

CC: A lot of it stems from when I was first doing that research looking with the kid’s science experiment books and seeing how science was demonstrated as a vehicle for fascination or wonder. This gave me an idea of how to construct images based around that, by using long exposures and different light sources and every day phenomena. More and more I’m getting inspired through reading and research. Most recently, I was reading a few essays on Einstein’s idea of quantum theory and Macro/Micro, how the atom functions like the solar system. And some of the work figures itself out just by diving in and making work, one thing leads to another.

Like these star cubes I’m doing now. I’ve always had an interest in the stars. This goes back to years ago, I did a project where I put black dots on my palms where the lines cross then I scanned my palms and inverted it to make the ink white. It created this constellation in my hand. From that I ended up doing a public art project in Cincinnati based on this idea, where we got about a thousand people around town to let us put dots on their hand and we scanned them and made this 8ft x 300ft mural in a public market. I had never done anything like that on a public scale and it was an amazing to have that opportunity and to see how excited people were to literally lend their hand to an art project.

CD: So tell me about your star cubes. How do you create these? How did they come about?

CC: So I was doing these big star fields where I was taking screenshots of images of deep space just off the computer so they’re really low res screenshots and I would print those out small about 4×5 inches and actually manipulate the ink in the print by dissolving it using solvents and cleaners. So, what is this interesting push and pull where you have the background and a very pixelated source image of stars and the ink that made up those stars dissolving into nebulous-like, gaseous clouds and then put back into the computer and printed into a physical thing. It’s a little convoluted but to me it was a way to try and do something more tangible with digital media.

It’s interesting, Star Cubes is a logical place for me to be with my work because it combines what I started with the star field images using images from the internet or working with the media. Appropriating and then printing them digitally, but this time actually creating a physical cube with them. What you’re seeing is a photograph of stars that are arranged into a six sided cube before the camera. They look much more complex than they really are. It does take quite a bit of precision to build each one. I’m still blown away that it works. There’s something about gravity and time and space that resonates through these images for me.

CD: You can lose yourself in these stars and forget where you are in regards to the sculptural aspect of the images.

CC: This idea of photography being a science and spending all of those years in the darkroom using a grain focuser. I always felt like the grain was a universe, all of the little specs of silver that are in this cloud of chaos make up your image. I’ve always thought about stars. It’s photons, light, interacting with heavy metals tracing light and silver. There’s something cosmic about photography on that level – light interacting with atoms.

CD: It’s funny how it all ties together

CC: And even with the digital stuff, with the pixels, are the modern grain in a way. That’s why I really like using the screenshots and how the star might be 6 pixels and then when that dissolves it leads to this bizarre sense of depth.

CD: This work seems a little different from doing a formal experiment-it’s more of a discovery that creates a beautiful image. Do you make a distinction between your work with photographing the results of experiments like in your Back to Light series and your work with science as an art form as in this Star Cubes work?

CC: I think it all stems from the same spot if you pull back far enough. It’s all about curiosity and what you can do with the materials around you. It becomes more formally scientific in Back to Light where it’s basically just creating potato batteries or apple batteries on various scales. I started doing those in 2008 I did a black and white picture called Lime Light where I made a stack of limes power a little light. I feel like every picture is an experiment so there’s always a question if it is going to work or not. Even though I’ve had quite a bit of experience shooting, usually something comes up so in the back of my mind I’m always thinking “Oh man, I hope this works, I hope I gave it enough light.” If I was too confident that it was going to come out the process may become stale. Risking something is always important.

CD: With that in your Back to Light Series or any of your other series have any worked better than others? Did anything fail as an experiment but make a really great photograph? Is there a distinction between a failed experiment and photograph?

CC: It’s funny you mention that, a lot of times, especially in that demonstration period, like where I was tossing a match that didn’t quite hit, the mistakes sometimes make it interesting for me. I guess because these [back to light series images] are shot out doors, specifically the one I did in the potato field, if there is a bit of wind, the wires move and there is a bit of a blur and I’ve come to accept that. You could see that as a flaw or a failure but to me that actually makes it more real. That it actually happened. For something to sit perfectly still in an open field in Northern Maine in the summer with the breeze going, it’s impossible. They say “there’s no truth in art” but for me the fact that it really happened is an important element.